Bert Is Evil - The Story Behind One of the Web's First Viral Hits

Check out the first part of the Bert is Evil series.

No good thing can last forever. In 2001, Bert moved from filler fluff to hard news when a Reuters photo journalist captured a protest sign in Bangladesh featuring the image of bin Laden and Bert. The protester had printed if off with no awareness of the satirical Western context.

News outlets jumped on the story in 9/11’s wake. Bert wasn’t just evil. He was now involved in the mounting tensions in the Middle East! For realsies! The story made headlines on many high profile news sites such as CNN, the BBC, ABC News, and The New York Times. It doesn’t escape Ignacio that this was a sign of things to come for American media. “The Bert/Bin Laden incident was one of the first times something from the Internet was sensationalized by mainstream media. It was covered on everything from NPR to Fox News. It was very weird to be part of all that,” he says.

The folks at the Children’s Television Workshop decided they couldn’t be “in on the joke” any longer. In a prepared statement, they said “Sesame Street has always stood for mutual respect and understanding. We’re outraged that our characters would be used in this unfortunate and distasteful manner. This is not at all humorous. The people responsible for this should be ashamed of themselves. We are exploring all legal options to stop this abuse and any similar abuses in the future.”

“After the Bin Laden incident they were very polite and asked me if I could take the site down,” Ignacio says. “I then asked all the mirrors to close down but as you probably know, nothing is ever removed from the Internet.”

On October 11th, 2001, Ignacio posted the following message on the site:

I have taken down the “Bert is Evil!” site from my server. I would like to thank Sesame Workshop for their patience and restraint all these years. I implore all fans and mirror site hosts of “Bert is Evil” to stop the spread of this site too. This is not selling out. I was not bullied. I am not being a pussy. I am doing this because I feel this has gotten too close to reality and I choose to be responsible enough to stop it right here. I hope my other projects will receive an ounce of the appreciation you all showed “Bert is Evil!”. (*)

 (*) http://web.archive.org/web/20011014193614/http://fractalcow.com/bert/bert.htm

***

While the original site is still available through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, Ignacio’s decision to allow mirrors back in 1998 ensured it would always exist in one form or another. Some enterprising individuals even created original content to differentiate themselves from the other mirrors. “BertisEvil.TV, one of the longest running mirrors, has tried to make a buck and sell merchandise and claim that it is the official site,” Ignacio says. “I used to be bothered by this but I’ve come to accept that I do not own Bert.”

You can’t sling jokes forever. The Webby’s are still around, but they aren’t the freewheeling, “Weirdest Site” award-giving hug fest they used to be. Dino Ignacio is older now too. He’s settled into something like a stable “adult” life. After college, he went into the video game industry. He works at Electronic Arts, ensuring the user interfaces in games like Dead Space and Dante’s Inferno are super slick. He has a daughter, and they even watch Sesame Street together. “It’s still a great show,” he says. “They have adapted very well.”

Bert Is Evil - The Story Behind One of the Web's First Viral Hits

You can trace Bert Is Evil’s influence to other “mature” Sesame Street parodies. The musical Avenue Q was a big hit only a few years after Ignacio put up his farewell message. It featured parodies of all the familiar Sesame Street residents (and Gary Coleman) but presented them with real world issues like homelessness, mental illness, loneliness, and “Schadenfreude” (taking pleasure in other’s pain). Songs included hits like “The Internet Is for Porn,” “If You Were Gay,” and “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”.

There’s also the lovable terrorist Gitmo (an Elmo parody) who appeared in segments on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in the early 2010’s. Stewart’s show has always had a good relationship with Children’s Television Workshop, not surprising since they’re both based in New York City. Cookie Monster himself has even appeared in sketches.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Peter Jackson film Meet the Feebles, which made puppets obscene way back in 1989. His humor was a lot more extreme than Bert Is Evil. I feel a little queasy just thinking about it.

I asked Dino about modern web culture: memes, mash-ups, and social media. “I think it’s amazing,” he said. “I love how we have used the Internet as a means of collaborating on humor and subculture. I am a big fan of the insanity of 4chan and the hive mind of reddit. I really love finding single serving sites like the stuff on http://internetisuseful.com/.” It’s not surprising he’s a big fan of memes, 4chan, and the like. After all, he was one of the first people out there doing it.

On his official website (http://dinoignacio.com/), he lists several interview and articles about Bert Is Evil; evidence of the silly young man he used to be. Some people would want to bury jokes about Bert and Ernie performing deviant acts on each other as deep as… They’d want them to disappear. What would somebody not raised in the web’s textual embryonic cyber-slush think? “It comes up now and then as people Google me. I used to avoid talking about it but I’ve learned to embrace it.”

***

Bert is Evil is being published on Sharing Spot as a 3-part mini-series. Each post will be available here after publication. If you just can’t wait {and we wouldn’t blame you!} feel free to grab the e-book or audio book!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *